Christopher Zalla's "Padre Nuestro": Immigrants Caught Between Two Worlds By Howard Feinstein

in 29th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Howard Feinstein

Set almost entirely among illegal Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn, Padre Nuestro, American director Christopher Zalla’s Spanish-language film, eschews the armchair-liberal feel of more typical American indie portrayals of marginalized laborers desperate to send money back home. The movie took the dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January.

The characters in Padre Nuestro embody a Latin ambivalence toward good and evil that is foreign to most white Americans. Juan (Armando Hernandez), 21, is an amoral thief, yet he is impish and engaging. Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola) is clean-living but dull. Over the course of the movie, we find the innocence in Juan and the demonic in Pedro.

Two overlapping ménages-à-trois, or trinities, if you will, supply the film with a high degree of Judeo-Christian resonance. Zalla updates two stories of fraternal friction from the Old Testament: Cain’s killing Abel and Jacob’s absconding with Esau’s birthright. Juan robs Pedro’s belongings from the back of the truck in which they are smuggled to New York. He has read Pedro’s letter of introduction to the Brooklyn-based father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), he has never known, written by his now-deceased mother. Upon arrival, Juan presents himself falsely to the irritable loner of an old man who had claimed to own a French restaurant but is in fact a dishwasher. Like Cain, he will ultimately be condemned to be a wanderer for an ugly transgression.

Illiterate Pedro, meanwhile, roams the city seeking this man whose exact address he can’t recall. Diego is the apex of this triangle. Each of the young men craves a father figure: Juan’s dad had abandoned him as a child, and Pedro has no family remaining. And in the practical world of illegal immigrant survival, both think of Diego as a shortcut to a job.

The other ménage is that of Juan, Pedro, and lynchpin Magda (Paola Mendoza), a New York-born prostitute and angel dust-addict of Colombian descent. A postmodern Mary Magdalene, she is for Juan the whore of popular belief, a woman who speaks his jive and whom he can pay for a quick lay. For the naïve Pedro, she is the good apostle validated by recently discovered scrolls. She not only assists him in his quest for his father but becomes his survival guru in the tough urban landscape.

What limits the four characters is their inability to forge emotional bonds. Both Juan and Magda overindulge to compensate for their loneliness, whereas Diego lives a nearly monastic life of self-denial. Pedro is too sheltered and unformed to go either way.

Zalla’s visuals echo his thematic concerns as well as his expressed desire for verisimilitude. He shot the movie in super-35, so that his characters are often sliced at the edge of the frame, as if straddling two worlds. Foregrounded objects obstruct them from view in the same way that New York City life removes them from most residents’ sightlines. Much of the filming took place at night. Zalla says that he wanted to make the atmosphere more menacing.

The filmmaker cast his leading men in Mexico, not New York, where he resides. They and Mendoza altered the script’s dialog to include slang and colloquialisms. Such authenticity will make the enterprise more palatable to a significant portion of the 30 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. with whom Zalla himself hopes to connect when Padre Nuestro is released here.